In search of simplicity

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

This quote, from Leonardo da Vinci, was on the original brochure for the Apple II. Throughout his life, Steve Jobs didn’t stray far from this principle. In fact, he was obnoxiously obsessive about it.

When Steve returned to Apple after his 12-year hiatus, he embraced simplicity with a vengeance. While Apple was wondering in the wilderness, they somehow managed to amass no fewer than a dozen different variations of their various computers. All were crappy (and I speak as a former owner of several of them) but at least there were a lot of different varieties of crap to choose from.

One of my favorite passages from Walt Isaacson’s book describes how Jobs quickly pruned the unwieldy product portfolio back down to size:

“After a few weeks Jobs finally had enough. “Stop!” he shouted at one big product strategy session. “This is crazy.” He grabbed a magic marker, padded to a whiteboard, and drew a horizontal and vertical line to make a four-squared chart. “Here’s what we need,” he continued. Atop the two columns he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro”; he labeled the two rows “Desktop” and “Portable.” Their job, he said, was to make four great products, one for each quadrant.”

The upshot is this. It’s not worth doing something unless you know you can do it really well. Which brings me to Google.

Google has always embraced the grass roots definition of innovation. The principle is this: get a bunch of really smart people, let them dream up really smart things, and then figure out a way to monetize on it. Google carries it even further. They have recently been on a shopping spree for other companies who are also dreaming up smart things. In theory, it sounds great. There’s only one problem. It lacks simplicity. And, by extension, it lacks focus.

Now, if you refer back to a column I wrote earlier (Amazon = Evolution, Google = Intelligent Design) it seems that I’m dancing on both sides of an argument. I don’t see it that way. My point in that column was that you can choose to provide platforms that enable wide spread innovation, but it’s difficult to try to own that process entirely within one organization. Platforms enable innovation to play out over a larger stage.

Now, you might say (and I would say the same, being a rabid Darwinist) that nature also lacks simplicity. Evolution certainly didn’t happen through any top down directive to be number one or number two at anything. Evolution is the biggest ongoing trial and error experiment ever conducted. Google’s approach seems to have much in common with nature in this regard.

But in fact, nature imposes the ultimate simplicity at a later stage, and it does so with relentless cruelty: successful variations survive, and unsuccessful ones die. As mercurial as Jobs was, he doesn’t hold a candle to the whims of ol’ Ma Nature.

In today’s marketplace, there seems to be a urge to try new things just because we can. The barrier to entry is lower than ever thanks to technology. So we rush opportunity on multiple fronts, hoping one will pay off for us. Companies like Google encourage this by actively enabling their team to dabble in whatever strikes their fancy. I’m not saying this is wrong, but at some point, focus has to be brought into the equation. You need to simplify, prioritize and focus to turn out “insanely great” products. You need to not only be innovative; you also need to be a ruthless pruner of less than great ideas. And the culture that fosters collaborative innovation generally has a difficult time arbitrating what survives and what doesn’t. This creates confusion and mixed priorities. It saps away simplicity.

Google’s approach is to extend beta periods indefinitely, hoping that this will weed out the winners from the losers. Eventually, loser products (and there have been many) die under their own inertia. But in the meantime, this extended life support system drains corporate resources. How many real winners have come out of Google Labs? What is the success rate of Google’s approach to innovation? What would have happened if Google Search weren’t as wildly profitable as it’s been? Would Google still be around?

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider December 21, 2011